Meanings of Christmas: Deliver us from common sense: The last article in our series for Christmas is by Duncan Macpherson, principal lecturer in theology and religious studies at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill
Saturday 01 January 1994
Some liberal Christian theologians find the miraculous elements in the Gospels an embarrassment and an obstacle to faith. This is probably due to the anti- supernaturalist premises of the fashionable intellectual establishment. In this respect the limitations of their theology often mirror the limitations of their politics. Both are governed by a notion of common sense.
The politely doubting churchman and the unenthusiastic reformer share a terror of appearing foolish. It is folly, to believe that God could literally take on a human nature and folly too to believe that a virgin could bear a child. It is also folly to believe in the possibility of radical political change. At the end of a decade in which the political Right has been setting the agenda, common sense has compelled even those previously regarded as hard Left politicians to reduce their dreams of a better world to a marginally less harsh pursuit of free-market economics.
Soft-focus seasonal believers are quite happy to suspend belief in common sense in religious matters but without making any distinctions between core Christian doctrines, allegorical biblical narratives and purely traditional material. Popular reaction to Bishop Jenkins's recent doubts about the legend of the wise men indicates that this was generally seen as being just as shocking as his usual Christmas denial of the much more important Christian doctrine of the virginal conception.
One must also guess that for many people questioning the popular legend about the ox and the ass in the stable would be on a par with questioning the even more doubtful Christmas myth that the world is basically a happy and friendly place: one in which, for example, Western governments give a mincepie about Bosnia, the unemployed and the homeless.
In contrast with both the more vapid type of liberal theology and consumer-saccharine Christianity, traditional orthodoxy asserts faith in the miracle of Emmanuel, 'God-with-us', and this is the hardest of all to believe - even harder than a virgin birth or an empty tomb. That the Transcendent Reality who orders all things should have taken the form of a servant - from human embryo all the way to the Cross - out of love for humanity, is the miracle which beggars belief. It represents only folly to some liberal intellectuals; and it is disturbingly subversive for those who wish to take refuge in a bogus religious sentimentality which challenges nothing.
It is surprising that Christian theologians such as Bishop Jenkins accept this truth of this great miracle of Emmanuel, but baulk at lesser miracles such as the belief that Jesus was conceived without a human father or that the tomb was miraculously empty on Easter Day. The virginal conception of Jesus is often called in to question at Christmas by theologians and even bishops who find no difficulty in believing in the Incarnation of God in Christ.
The doctrine of the virgin conception is often misunderstood to mean that God was the father of Jesus in some crude biological sense. Such an interpretation would leave Jesus as a demi-god rather than as fully divine. In fact there is no causal relationship between the divinity of Christ and virginal conception. Logically Jesus could have had a human father and still be the person Christians claim him to be. The virginal conception is not the source of his Divine sonship. It is a sign of God's power entering into history in a way which transcends limited and reactionary notions of common sense as well as dwarfing all facile Yuletide religiosity.
The miraculous is God's power revealed in the unexpected which provides revolutionary discontinuities in both our personal and our political history. It is common sense that human beings are personally selfish, vindictive, jealous, acquisitive, bigoted and violent. It is also common sense that a thriving economic system requires that there should be unemployment and homelessness in advanced countries, and war and famine in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. But the revolutionary discontinuity of God- with-us-in-power calls into question this debilitating faith in the limits of common sense.
The miracle of Emmanuel also mocks the shallow seasonal credulity which is not serious enough to see the power or the possibilities of the challenge which Christmas provides. Many Christians miss this point. They see the challenge of Christmas as primarily a call to change attitudes - but God did not need to enter actively our world, and create radical discontinuities in our history and subvert our notions of common sense, just to change attitudes.
Within the liberal framework of the possible, the miraculous conception of Jesus is no more than an allegory, used to show that Jesus was a special person with a special message to change our human attitudes. Some Christians go even further and deny the greater miracle of Emmanuel and abandon the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ entirely.
A few even deny the reality of God himself. For these liberals it is not only miracles which are contrary to common sense but the whole conception of a real object for Christian faith and worship. They may be right to claim common sense as their ally even in this last demolition of belief. Once the liberal premise of a faith without miracle is accepted it is difficult to establish just where or why the line should be drawn.
Common sense does not merely stifle true Christianity. It can stifle all our impulses to justice. Liberation theology should liberate us from a common-sense acceptance of injustice, as well as from a common-sense rejection of miracles. That is the present we really need to keep hold of, all year round.
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